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Welcome to Writing Wednesday, my new weekly feature where I discuss my works in progress, project ideas, editing struggles, or anything else related to the world of writing. Feel free to grab my button and post your own thoughts on writing! Leave a link to your post in the comments and I’ll stop by.
Let’s talk about censorship, baby. Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you probably heard about the new, sanitized versions of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn being released without the n-word. Critics on both sides of the issue have spoken out, with some arguing this makes the books easier to teach and others arguing that this is just plain censorship.
No matter which side of this argument you fall on, I think everyone agrees that the n-word is a nasty word that shouldn’t be used. Ever. Would I prefer not to read a book that uses it 219 times? Yes. I also would prefer it if the word hadn’t been a prevalent part of speech patterns at the time the book was set. The fact is that it was, and so Twain put it in the book, as the New York Times rightly points out.
The part of this whole mess that makes me cringe is that somebody felt the need to “correct” the book to make it more palatable. I have two words for you, my friends: slippery slope. Removing slurs from our vocabulary is commendable, but altering classic works of fiction is definitely not. I understand that most school districts and parents do not want to introduce this word as acceptable, even in the context of a historical work. Yet changing the n-word to “slave” just sweeps the issue under the rug.
For me, forcing myself to read language that I’m not comfortable with is a valuable component of the lesson. Why is this word not acceptable to me? What is the cultural history and significance of this word and how does that influence my reaction to it? How has the world changed since 1840? If Twain put in the effort to capture a moment in time linguistically, what right do we have to change it?
I should probably ‘fess up to the fact that I’m a pretty big advocate for free speech anyway. I don’t allow my personal objections to interfere with someone else’s right to speak their mind in whatever manner they choose. If I am uncomfortable, it is my right to not listen. This situation is no different. If you have a problem with the language in these books, and can’t look at the lesson it teaches, then don’t read the books. If we can’t trust high schoolers to treat the material like adults, then don’t teach it. But the answer cannot be to censor the books in order to make them readable and/or teachable.
To me, this just opens the door to censoring all offensive works of art. I’m equally appalled when nude sculptures are re-worked with clothing. Art is not something that can be modified according to taste by the consumer. I don’t go to rock concerts and unplug the lead guitarist’s amp and hand him a violin. I don’t see The Nutcracker and ask the men to put on gym shorts. In this case, I certainly am not going to alter a piece of fiction so I can pretend the n-word didn’t exist in our lexicon. I refuse to accept that erasing and sanitizing parts of our history is the appropriate response to our discomfort.
What do you think? Is this censorship? Is this appropriate?